Division of Liability in a Personal Injury Claim

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 What Is a Personal Injury Claim?

In a personal injury claim, the plaintiff is claiming that they sustained an injury as a result of an act or a failure to act on the part of the defendant. These injuries may be physical, mental, or both.

The court or jury may award the plaintiff a damages award if they successfully prove their case. Examples of mental health injuries a plaintiff may suffer include emotional pain and anguish related to an accident.

Examples of physical injuries a plaintiff may suffer include injuries to their limbs, organs, or other parts of their anatomy. An injury does not have to manifest itself immediately and may develop over a period of time.

Some personal injuries may occur on purpose, or intentionally. For example, if the defendant deliberately injured the victim or intended to commit an action that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries.

Personal injuries can also occur by accident, or unintentionally. If an unintentional injury resulted from the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff may file a lawsuit based on their negligent behavior.

Common examples of negligence based cases include, but are not limited to:

Why Is It Important to Establish a Division of Liability in a Personal Injury Case?

Under personal injury law, division of liability refers to a situation in which more than one individual is responsible for a plaintiff’s injuries. In a personal injury case, liability refers to the defendant being legally responsible for the plaintiff’s accident or injuries.

Liability can become a complex issue when multiple parties are responsible for the injuries. There are three categories of liability, including:

  • Joint liability;
  • Several liability; and
  • Joint and several liability.

What Is “Joint Liability”?

Joint liability means that more than one defendant is liable for the injuries that the plaintiff sustained. Under the theory of joint liability, each of the defendants are fully liable for the total amount of damages.

For example, if there were three drivers who were held jointly liable for the injuries of a fourth driver, they would each be liable for the entire amount of damages. If one of the three responsible drivers were to pass away, the other two would be required to continue making the damages payments until the injured plaintiff’s losses were remedied.

If one of the drivers were to pay the full amount, the other drivers would not be able to be sued for the same amount, or the plaintiff would have been compensated multiple times.

Joint liability usually applies mostly to debt issues and is not common in tort claims or personal injury claims.

What Is “Several Liability”?

Several liability is essentially the opposite of joint liability. Under the concept of several liability, every defendant is only liable for the percentage of the injuries which they caused.

For example, if the three drivers in the example above were each only liable for ⅓ of the plaintiff’s injuries, they would each only be required to pay ⅓ of the amount of the damages award. Several liability may also be referred to as proportionate liability.

One of the main issues with several liability involved determining the exact percentage of liability for each of the defendants. For example, it may be difficult to determine whether a defendant was 20% or 40% liable.

Several liability is similar to the way in which liability is divided in a comparative negligence defense. For more information on issues related to these, see the following LegalMatch articles:

What Is “Joint and Several Liability”?

Joint and several liability holds each of the defendants liable as a group for a plaintiff’s injuries. After that, it is up to the defendants to determine how much of the damages award that they will be responsible for.

In the example above involving the three drivers, each one of the three drivers will be included as a defendant and will incur liability for the plaintiff’s injuries. If the three defendants determine that only one of the drivers is fully responsible, that driver will be required to pay the full amount of the damages.

If that driver does not agree, they can file a separate lawsuit against the other two drivers to obtain a contribution from them.

What Is the Difference Between “Joint Liability” and “Joint and Several Liability”?

Under personal injury laws, the term joint and several liability describes the responsibility that each individual has when two or more individuals caused the same injury. With joint and several liability, on the other hand, both of the defendants are responsible for paying all of the plaintiff’s damages.

Joint liability means that more than one of the defendants are responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. In joint liability cases, each of the defendants are fully liable for the total amount of damages.

Which Liability Rules Apply in Each State?

Every state in the United States has laws that govern the division of liability in personal injury claims. There are some states that follow pure rules while other states use a modified version of a rule, which means that they may place limitations on the division of liability.

The states that follow pure several liability rules include:

  • Alaska;
  • Arizona;
  • Arkansas;
  • Connecticut;
  • Florida;
  • Georgia;
  • Indiana;
  • Kansas;
  • Kentucky;
  • Michigan;
  • Tennessee ;
  • Utah;
  • Vermont; and
  • Wyoming.

All of the other states apply their own modified version of the joint and several liability laws. It is important to note that pure joint liability is rarely ever applied in personal injury claims.

How Is Liability Determined?

Liability can be determined using several different approaches depending on the type of injury sustained. In cases involving automobile accidents, the physical evidence of the vehicles is often a key factor.

In medical malpractice suits, medical records and the testimony of doctors are crucial evidence. Each state has different laws regarding multiple defendants in a single lawsuit.

Proving fault in personal injury cases may also be complicated by other issues, such as:

  • Previous injuries;
  • Insurance options; or
  • Contributory negligence.

What Is an Example of How Division of Liability Works?

Suppose that Bob is struck by vehicles that were driven by Tom, John, and Jim. The jury awards Bob $10,000 in damages.

The jury also determined that Tom was 20% liable, John was 20% liable, and Jim was 60% liable. The following is a breakdown under several liability rules and joint and several liability rules:

  • Several liability rules: Tom would owe Bob 20% of the damages, which is $2,000. John would also owe 20%, or $2,000. Jim, however, would owe 60%, or $6,000. Thus, Bob would be compensated for the full $10,000, with each defendant paying in proportion to their individual, or several, liability; and
  • Joint and several liability rules: Bob may recover the full amount from any of the defendants, regardless of their percentage of liability. Bob may sue only Tom, who would then have to pay the full $10,000, even if he was only 20% liable. Tom can then pursue a lawsuit against John and Jim, who may have to pay $2,000 and $6,000, respectively. Alternatively, Tom can name John and Jim as co-defendants who will be joined in the original lawsuit.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with Division of Liability in a Personal Injury Claim?

If you have a personal injury claim that involves multiple defendants, it is important to consult with a personal injury lawyer who can advise you of the laws in your state as well as help you recover the full amount to which you are entitled.

These types of cases are often complex and require expert testimony, so having a lawyer on your case will greatly improve your chances at compensation.

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